Keith Jackson, who was widely regarded as the voice of college football by several generations, died late Friday night, his family said. He was 89.
Jackson, who retired in 2006, spent some 50 years calling the action in a folksy, down-to-earth manner that made him one of the most popular play-by-play personalities in the business.
“For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football,” said Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company. “When you heard his voice, you knew it was a big game. Keith was a true gentleman and a memorable presence. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Turi Ann, and his family.”
Jackson got his start on the radio in 1952, broadcasting Washington State games, but went on to provide the national television soundtrack for the biggest games in the most storied stadiums. His colorful expressions — “Whoa, Nellie” and “Big Uglies” among the many — became part of the college football lexicon.
He was credited with nicknaming the Rose Bowl “The Granddaddy of Them All” and Michigan‘s stadium “The Big House.”
“That big smiling face, and just the thrill and the love he had for doing college football,” Bob Griese told SportsCenter when asked what he’d remember about Jackson, his longtime broadcast partner whom he started working with in 1985.
“He did it for a long, long time. … He never intruded on the game. It was always about the kids on the field. Never, never shining the light on himself. And that was one of the things that I most admired about him.”
In 1999, Jackson was awarded the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Gold Medal — its highest honor — and named to the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame, the first broadcaster accorded those distinguished honors.
Having a hard time finding the right words to express what the icon Keith Jackson meant to me personally, Michigan football and CFB, in general. May his family find some comfort in knowing how much joy he brought us for so many years and that his legacy endures. #RIP #Legend pic.twitter.com/Q5CWRp9gmp
— Desmond Howard (@DesmondHoward) January 13, 2018
Keith Jackson was the voice of college football. Rest In Peace my friend 🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/2YcAaRKoan
— Marcus Allen (@MarcusAllenHOF) January 13, 2018
THE voice of college football and one of the most iconic voices of all time, RIP Keith Jackson. Thank you for all of the incredible Saturday’s.
— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) January 13, 2018
— Tim Brown (@81TimBrown) January 13, 2018
Jackson began calling college football games for ABC Sports when it acquired the broadcast rights for NCAA football in 1966. He also worked NFL and NBA games, 11 World Series and LCS, 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, and auto racing. In addition, he traveled to 31 countries for “Wide World of Sports.”
Among his broadcasting accomplishments, Jackson was the first play-by-play voice of Monday Night Football when the program debuted in 1970. He called Bucky Dent’s home run against the Red Sox in 1978 as well as Reggie Jackson’s three-homer game in the 1977 World Series.
His Olympics highlights include Mark Spitz’s record seven gold medals in the 1972 Games and speedskater Eric Heiden’s five golds in 1980.
Jackson announced he would retire from college football play-by-play after the 1998 season but ended up continuing with ABC Sports. He walked away for good in May 2006, telling The New York Times he was finished “forever.”
“I am saddened to hear the news of Keith Jackson’s death,” USC athletic director Lynn Swann, another broadcast partner of Jackson, said in a statement Saturday. “Keith covered games I played in and we worked together at ABC Sports for decades. Every step of the way, he shared his knowledge and his friendship.
“Not just the voice, but the spirit of college football. My heart and prayers go out to his wife and children on this day and I thank them for allowing so many of us to have shared in Keith’s life.”
His final game ended up being the 2006 Rose Bowl, the thrilling national-title showdown between USC and Texas that saw Vince Young and the Longhorns prevail over the Trojans and their two Heisman Trophy winners, Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, with 19 seconds remaining.
Other memorable college football moments with Jackson on the play-by-play call included the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (Ohio State vs. Miami), Kordell Stewart’s Hail Mary in the 1994 “Miracle at Michigan,” Desmond Howard’s “Hello Heisman” moment in 1991 for Michigan, and “Wide Right I” and “Wide Right II” in the Florida State-Miami rivalry.
He was inducted into the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1994, and he received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association.
Jackson was born on Oct. 18, 1928, in Roopville, Georgia — near the Alabama state line. He spent four years in the Marine Corps before attending Washington State and graduating with a broadcast journalism degree. He worked at the ABC affiliate in Seattle, KOMO, for 10 years, including conducting the first live sports broadcast from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1958 with his radio call of a University of Washington rowing victory.
He became sports director of ABC Radio West in 1964 and was a freelancer for ABC Sports until becoming part of its college football announcing crew.
The National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association named him the National Sportscaster of the Year five times, among other honors.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.